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Personal watercraft fans say Deep Creek's rules are all wet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

McHENRY -- Tim Selby and his family head from Westminster to Western Maryland just about any weekend they can to spend time at a family cabin overlooking scenic Deep Creek Lake. And to glide around the lake on their Honda Seadoos, or "personal watercraft," as they're called these days.

But as Mr. Selby and countless others here will tell you, their enjoyment of Maryland's largest lake is hindered by a 6-year-old regulation that bans personal watercraft on the Garrett County lake from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

It's a regulation that watercraft fans are pushing the state Department of Natural Resources to rescind, while their opponents charge that these machines -- sometimes likened to motorcycles on water -- are noisy, nuisances and safety hazards.

"It's really a stupid law," said Mr. Selby, a Maryland state trooper assigned to the College Park barracks. "We should be given all the rights of other boaters. Our weekends are really hindered, especially on Sundays. We may get to go out in the morning, but by the time we can go out again, it's time to go home."

The Deep Creek Lake Advisory and Review Committee is considering the request to lift the ban but isn't expected to make a recommendation to DNR officials until next month or October, long after this summer's tourist season has ended, said Paul Durham, lake manager at Deep Creek Lake.

The craft often are referred to as "Jet Skis," although that name refers only to one model -- by Kawasaki -- of the speedy, quick-turning craft that several competing manufacturers market.

They are "controversial not just here but all over waterways, lakes and rivers across the country," Mr. Durham said. "But a predominant number of people asking us to lift the ban are property owners here, not just tourists. We're looking for a recommendation from the community on how to approach this."

The personal watercraft ban was imposed in 1989 as a means of controlling the number of boats and other craft on the 3,500-acre, man-made lake, Mr. Durham said.

Mr. Durham said one out of four vessels on the lake now is a personal watercraft. But with the sport's growing popularity have come increasing numbers of complaints.

Restrictions -- such as one requiring boats to keep 100 feet from other vessels, docks, bridges and people in the water -- that apply on other Maryland waterways are in effect on Deep Creek Lake, too.

"If just 10 percent of the number of personal watercraft here on the lake were out at that time of the ban, we would exceed what is supposed to be a comfortable boating capacity for the lake," Mr. Durham said, noting that the number is about 350 vessels at any given time.

"There's a domino effect -- concerns about the loss of appeal of the lake that drives an enormous economic engine here. If we lose that appeal, we start to lose tourists, business and other development."

Frank Wood, a consultant for the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, which represents eight manufacturers, said the group supports lifting the ban. He said safety education and stricter enforcement of state laws should alleviate any concerns.

"Water skiing is allowed during the ban, and water skiing takes up a lot of space and can be extremely dangerous," Mr. Wood said. "We don't feel personal watercraft cause any more safety hazards. All vessels should be treated the same. If there are going to be restrictions, there should be restrictions across the board."

Dan Schmitt of Pittsburgh, whose family has a summer home on the lake, represents about 200 other Deep Creek Lake property owners who have personal watercraft and want equal access to the lake.

"Personal watercraft owners are being deprived of the use of the lake during prime hours of enjoyment, particularly between Memorial Day and Labor Day," he said. "It's no longer safe to operate on the lake because there's an excessive concentration of vessels out there just before the ban begins and right afterward.

"Our civil rights for use of what we feel is a public lake have been violated," he added.

Technically, Deep Creek is privately owned. The lake bed and a 65-mile-long buffer strip around the lake are owned by the Pennsylvania Electric Co., which uses the lake as a water source for a nearby hydroelectric plant. DNR manages the lake's recreational use.

Mike Belmonte, president of the Deep Creek Lake Property Owners Association, said the matter is "quite an emotional issue" for many of the 1,500 members in his organization.

"I can understand [the watercraft operators'] position, but on the other hand, there are a lot of people who think they're nuisances," he said. "It's a real dilemma. We're hearing from people on both sides. The opinions have come more strongly from people against lifting the ban."

Ted Rissell, a lake resident who operates the Deep Creek Lake Sailing School, is among the opponents.

"I'm not a [personal watercraft] fan. I think there are a lot of people who don't care for them," he said. "They make a lot of people nervous."

Carol Doctor, owner of The Aquatic Center, the only personal watercraft renter on the lake, said tourists often are shocked to find they cannot rent the popular vessels on weekend afternoons.

"It's discouraging to explain the ban to tourists every weekend," she said. "They don't understand. They come up here to enjoy themselves on the lake and find out they can't. For a lot of people, this lake is just as close as Ocean City."

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